Sunday, April 13, 2014

North to the Klondike with George Smithhisler

Only six inches high, the milk glass bottle shown here is shaped like a mountain range or glacier with brown and gold paint on both side that emphasize the rugged nature of the terrain being depicted.  Known widely as the “Klondike Flask,” it has been called “one of bottle collecting’s classical figural bottles.”  Less well recognized is George Smithhisler, the Ohio liquor dealer who designed it, provided the several swallows of liquor the bottle contained, and issued the flasks in substantial numbers, apparently as a memorial to the Yukon Gold Rush.

Smithhisler was a descendant of French settlers. His grandparents,  Philip and Mary Smithhisler, had immigrated to the United States in 1828, bringing his father, John Michael, and other children with them.  The family first took up residence in Baltimore, Maryland, where they remained until they moved to Holmes County, Ohio, where Philip took up farming.   Like his father, John Michael Smithhisler was a farmer and in 1835  married a woman who also had emigrated from Alsace, France, with her parents.  She was Mary Milless, the daughter of Jacob and Catharine Milless.  The couple had a family of eleven children, eight sons and three daughters.  Among them was George Smithhisler.

In 1847 the Smithhislers moved from Holmes County to Knox County, located in the central part of the Buckeye State,  approximately 30 miles north and east of Columbus. The county seat is Mount Vernon, named after the home of George Washington.  Shown here as it looked circa 1870,  Mount Vernon was a railroad town, a stop on the Pennsylvania Railroad between Cleveland and Columbus and on the Baltimore and Ohio between Sandusky and Newark

By the time the Smithhisler’s arrived, the town had about 2,500 inhabitants, a court house, a market house, churches and a number of taverns.  I surmise that John Michael Smithhisler may have been making some liquor on his farm for local consumption and that his son George grew up in a tradition of distilling. George too became a farmer and in 1871, at the age of 21, married.  His wife was Sarah Frances Bradfield, a girl of 18.  The couple, reputedly shown here, were wed at St. Vincent’s Catholic Church in Mount Vernon by Father J. Brent.

During their eleven year marriage,  the Smithhislers would have four children, two boys and two girls.  Then, at age 30, possibly in child birth,  Sarah died.  Left bereft and with small children to raise,  George five years later remarried.  She was Sarah Gertrude Murray and their wedding  also was held at St. Vincent’s.

Meanwhile,  Smithhisler was establishing himself as a wholesale and retail liquor dealer, located at 15-17 West Vine Street in Mount Vernon.  A trade card indicated  that he was dealing in both foreign and domestic wines and liquor.   Moreover, he had become the area representative for the Pabst Brewing Company of Milwaukee.
It was around the turn of the century that Smithhisler issued his famous flask.  At that time the Klondike held great fascination.   A region of the Yukon in Northwest Canada, east of the Alaska border, it lies around the Klondike River, a stream that enters the Yukon from the frontier town of Dawson at the east.    Gold had been discovered in 1897 and precipitated the Klondike Gold Rush that saw thousands heading there with dreams of riches.

It also inspired Smithhisler to issue his small milk glass flask of whiskey to memorialized the event.  It bore a round red label, announcing the contents as “Nuggets of Pure Gold from Klondyke” -- an alternative spelling -- and included his name and location. The flask also featured a metal screw cap that sealed the threaded neck and covered the ground-off top of the bottle.  Through the years this artifact has attracted considerable attention from bottle and glass collectors.  It was blown in a mold that took a considerable amount of time and attention to create the mountain effect.  It also required painting by hand to overlay the glass with gold and brown pigments.   Over the years, as shown here,  some examples have lost their labels and significant amounts of paint.  In one case an owner stripped the bottle down to its milk glass base, revealing the full extent of the ridges and valleys.

An expert on American glass and bottles, Dr. Cecil Munsey, has been fascinated with Smithhisler’s creation and has written about it, calling it a “classic.”  He has noted that it is believed by many that the bottle was inspired and made just before the beginning of the 20th Century to commemorate the Klondike gold strike.  Munsey commented:  “Supposedly, besides the strike itself, the bottle honored the pioneering prospectors who, like Yukon Jack McQuesten, made the gold strike possible.”  Known as the “Father of the Yukon,”  McQuesten (1836-1909) was a native of New Hampshire who became a pioneer in Alaska and Yukon as an explorer and prospector.

Dr. Munsey may be right about what Smithhisler’s flask is meant to commemorate.  My additional suspicion is that George, having lived all his life in Central Ohio, digging furrows in the soil for crops, might himself have wanted desperately to go “North to the Yukon” to seek his fortune digging in the tundra for gold.  With a wife, four children, a farm and a liquor business, that was a dream Smithhisler would never to be able to achieve.  His flask may well have been “Plan B.”

Little else about Smithhisler has entered the historical record. He seems never again to have designed and  issued a figural flask or a notable bottle of any kind. His liquor business  closed by 1916 when Ohio voted to go “Dry.”  In his later years it appears he relocated to Cleveland, perhaps to live with one of his children.  In November 1930, Smithhisler died at City Hospital in Cleveland at the age of 80. His body was returned to Mount Vernon where he had spent most of his life and was buried in Calvary Cemetery there.  Meanwhile, the flask that bore his name lives on in collections throughout America.

Postscript:  Two years after posting this vignette on George Smithhisler and his Klondyke flask, I came across an images of one that bears inclusion here.  It has a label that wishes "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year," without indicating what year it might have been issued.  Moreover,  the top of the cap was included that shows it bore the name of the whiskey.


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